Tuesday, January 19, 2016

So You've Been Publicly Shamed - Jon Ronson

First things first: on the sidebar, I've added a gadget that, at least in theory, will set up an email list for those of you who want to get notified whenever I post a new review/rambling. I don't think Facebook links are the most effective way for me to get the word out about this blog, and I'm not going to pay to promote the links so that they'll show up in more newsfeeds. I'll keep posting links there to take advantage of whatever exposure that brings me, but trying to keep up with all their algorithm changes is exhausting. Now, I will fully admit that I have no idea how this new email gadget actually works, having never used any such tool in my life, but let's learn together! So please, sign up to be notified from the Benevolent Internet Overlords at Google when I publish new posts.

Now, onto my actual reason for posting: a rare example of nonfiction in my reading list! Looking at my overall stats, I probably read 99% fiction and maybe 2 or 3 nonfiction books per year. Nevertheless, I'd count Jon Ronson as one of my favorite authors, no question about it. He is a journalist who investigates multiple perspectives on any story he chooses to tackle, then writes up his findings with a sense of dry, self-deprecating humor that reminds me very much of David Sedaris. Better still, he has a nice long list of major hits, including The Men Who Stare at Goats, The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, and Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries. I haven't made my way through his full list yet, but I can confirm that Lost at Sea is a masterpiece. I think The Psychopath Test will be next on my list.

Ronson's newest book, which was published in March 2015, is the amusing-yet-cringe-inducing So You've Been Publicly Shamed. In it, Ronson documents how social media, especially Twitter, has been harnessed countless times to (you guessed it) publicly shame individuals who have crossed some generally accepted boundary of propriety. At first glance, this seems like a good tool to have in our belts; if someone gets attention for saying something abhorrent, we can share that information and often reach them directly to express our disapproval. Ultimately, I think the goal in this scenario is usually to bring more awareness to whatever issue has been raised and contribute to a more tolerant atmosphere for all of us to live in. Ronson fully understands the justification behind public social media shaming, and he even shares an example of his personal participation in this practice. 

As soon as he's established the draw of democratic justice, however, Ronson then shifts the story to a much more nuanced, uncomfortable perspective: he speaks directly to a handful of people that have been publicly shamed. Two nerds mutter dick jokes to each other at a conference, and the next thing they know, their picture has been plastered all over the Internet because someone overheard the jokes and decided to publicly announce that she was offended instead of simply turning around and asking them to pipe down. A woman tweets a tasteless joke about AIDS on her personal account as she gets on a plane, then gets off the plane to discover that she's become the world's newest villain. Jobs are lost, lives are irrevocably altered, and apologies are brushed off as insincere. As Ronson is careful to note, yes, all of the individuals included in this book have made mistakes. That much is undeniable, although some of the featured mistakes are definitely worse than others. But in all honesty, I'm sure I've made plenty of tone-deaf jokes or insensitive statements that could be twisted to make me look like a horrible person. I'd be surprised if you could find anyone for whom this would not hold true. Luckily for me, I haven't yet been overheard by anyone who's taken to Twitter to inform the Internet of my indiscretions. One of the main (and most uncomfortable) takeaways from this book, however, is that this really can happen to anyone at any time. Most of the people he talked to were not famous in any way before they were shamed. Now, their entire reputation online is clouded by one mistake they made that was documented and shared millions of times over by people who did not know them and had no idea what the context was at the time the mistake was made. It's mind-blowing.

So, onto my soapbox for a moment: let's all be mindful of the things we post and share online. There are two sides to every story, as the old saying goes, and I'd hate to think Twitter and Facebook will cause us to lose our critical thinking skills entirely just because it's easier to click "retweet" or "share" than it is to look up an article about the issue. Perhaps in some cases public shaming is justified, but this book made me think that it's better to stay out of the fray until I understand the whole story than it is to take one person's word at face value and jump on the rage bandwagon.

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